New York

Frederick Sommer

International Center of Photography Museum (ICP)

Frederick Sommer’s career is as elusive as the images that comprise it. This is partly because Sommer has put very few of those images into circulation over the years, but more because he has employed such a range of techniques. He has done landscapes, portraits, nudes, and even some street photography. He has accordioned reproductions of Albrecht Dürer prints and photographed the results. He has done paper cutting as if it were a form of automatic writing, and photographed that result with light playing through the slits. He has done superimpositions and collages and assemblages in great variety. And the statements he has made have been as epigrammatic, as unfathomable, as the photographs themselves. But at least one of these aphorisms is a sentiment he obviously believes in the most fundamental way. It is that “only confusion is ultimately the great creator.”

Yet out of the confusion, some themes do emerge. The exhibition at ICP recognized an important one when it hung two 1948 pictures, Livia and Medallion, side by side. The former is of a piercingly beautiful little girl, hands folded on her breast and wearing what could be a first communion dress; the latter, made against the same background, is of a deteriorated doll’s head severed from its body. The two pictures were no doubt originally linked in Sommer’s own mind, which runs to images of decomposition. From an untitled early 1940s assemblage that includes the asshole of a chicken to the supremely mysterious Paracelsus, a cameraless negative painted on cellophane in 1959, Sommer’s experiments and innovations are full of what Robert Frost once called “assorted characters of blight and death.” As in the Frost phrase, so in Sommer’s photographs, the tone is not elegiac, but macabre. The images are ghastly, yes—one of Sommer’s most famous is of an amputated human foot—but we can’t help feeling that this guy is also laughing up his sleeve at death.

As elusive as Sommer’s career is, then, there are certain preoccupations in it that hold it together. If I had to bring all the Sommer work I know down to a single image, I would probably choose one of the fairly early photographs of animal carcasses on the Arizona desert—perhaps Jack Rabbit, 1939, or Horse, 1945. The remains that Sommer chose to photograph in such studies are always recognizable, but they are also usually so dried out, so far gone, that in many places you can’t tell the ground from the animal. They are, in other words, images of metamorphosis. I think it is this that gives Sommer’s photography its elusiveness. He sees the world as a constant, irreducible metamorphosis of forms. He lives in a universe of continuous, infinitesimal change, a world where all change occurs as it does in a spectrum, and where drawing lines between one state and another is therefore futile, arbitrary. “The world is not a world of cleavages, the world is a world of bonds,” Sommer himself has said. “Everything is shared by everything else; there are no discontinuities.”

This frame of mind gives Sommer’s work its Blakean quality, obscurity and largeness at the same time, a feeling of mythopoesis. Like Blake, Sommer has often seemed an eccentric, neglected, misunderstood figure—a peripheral figure—in the art world of his time. But like Blake, too, he has attracted a few sympathetic spirits whose admiration for his work should tip us off to its originality and importance. When he went to the first Aspen conference on photography in 1951, most of the participants condemned his pictures, which were branded “unphotographic.” Yet among the Surrealists, especially Max Ernst, who became his close friend, Sommer was considered one of the heroes of American art. Found subjects are the only kind that photography ever has; it was inevitable that the found objects of the Surrealists should work their way into the medium. But no other photographer adopted this imagery with as much conviction and feel for its significance as Sommer. Isolated though he may have been, out in the Arizona boonies, Sommer inserted both photography and himself into the mainstream of modern art. This retrospective is a long overdue recognition of that fact.

Colin Westerbeck